Saturday, January 26, 2008

Memories of Summer

Today is the sixth day in a row of pouring rain and high surf in Northern California. My dive gear is forlornly bone dry and hanging or stuffed where it belongs until I load up the van again, maybe next week, maybe not.

So in the meantime, I'm going through photos of last year and came across this one, snapped of us by Seth, our Bubbles Below Dive Master, between dives at Hale o Honu (House o' Turtles) on the south west coast of Kauai.

We were sitting on the back of "Dive Rocket" with a sugar mill in the background, enjoying the warm sun and talking about what had been our first dive together as a family.

We had descended into 78 degree water with visibility around 70 feet. It was stunning to be able to see the bottom and the broad lava rock slab ledges progressively sloping off to the south into deeper water. We levelled of at about 60 feet at the lip of one of the ledges and swam along the edge looking for eels and lionfish in the cracks and holes. We found both. In addition, we saw lots of Trigger Rish, Racoon Butterflys, Blue Strip Buutterflys, and everywhere, turtles.

There were old males and juveniles, and some mating pairs. At one point a young turtle swam right into the center of our group, and we obligingly formed up a circle with the turtle in the center, then everyone just hung there. It was a moment out of time, perfect, peaceful and complete.

Later, we were given a rare treat when, out of the blue there swam toward us a Spotted Eagle Ray. It circled us as we were suspended off the ledge about 15 feet and then dove onto the wall with its mouth scraping along looking for scallops. It wiggled along like that four about 10 feet and then abruptly turned seaward and winged its way directly below me toward deep water.

Later that week, in August 2007, we dove at Sheraton Caverns, a spectacular site off Poipu with large cylindrical wells connected by a labyrinth of lava tubes, and a few other very nice boat dives off the south shore. Sheraton Caverns would be an easy kayak dive from Koloa Landing, though primarily people do it as a boat dive.

These dives were all unforgettable, but going over my logs and looking at the pictures, my favorite memory of that trip was our first dive together and how we spent an eternity suspended in a circle around a young sea turtle.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Mono Lobo Wall and chilly winds

The first very cool thing about getting to Mono Lobo Wall on a boat is watching the depth finder go from about 130' to 280' in the blink of an eye and then off the charts with a display contour that goes just perfectly vertical down. The display showed "?" which was apt since nobody knows what's down there 1000 feet below the surface as you head out over the Carmel finger of the Monterey undersea canyon. This happens as close to shore as the boat can go while you head south past the wash rock on the north point of Monastery Beach. After a few minutes of "?", during which time I idly thought about how far it is to the bottom, the depth finder showed a dramatic vertical upward graph as it found the bottom again - another vertical wall that leveled off at about 100'.

We motored slowly in to the wall area, just around the point from Monastery South and dropped anchor in about 80'. I didn't have my camera because I wanted fewer distractions and was more interested in poking my light into the many holes and cracks we were sure to find.

We dropped off the side of Monterey Express and descended in about 70' heading more or less in toward the rocky labyrinth of spires, columns, fissures, walls and buttresses that comprise the jumbled rock terrain. It was sort of like buzzing around an undersea version of Sleeping beauty's Castle, so varied and dramatic was the underwater architecture.

All the rock faces were simply exploding with life and color, fed by the nutrient rich upwellings from the nearby trench: huge blankets of Strawberry Anemones, gorgonians, yellow, purple, blue sponges were everywhere, and holes featured crabs and amazing yellow and green striped fish. The kelp had been cleared out by recent storms but there still was enough to give the whole underwater realm a mystical quality.

We circled around spires and floated through deep fissures with vertical walls on either side, we dove into canyons and wandered through kelp stalks as large Copper Rock Fish eyed us with suspicion but didn't run away.

Soon we were back on the boat and could see immediately that conditions had worsened, with a chilly wind that had begun kicking up chop while we were down, and making the whole idea of a surface interval in a cold wetsuit a survival exercise. I stashed my gear under the bench we'd found inside the cabin area out of the wind (it's good to get to the boat early), and got into my long dive coat, donning it right over my wetsuit. It actually made a difference and I didn't start shivering, though I was close. It was cold. the air temperature was about 54 and the water temperature we'd just come out of was 52 degrees so there was little relief once out of the water, worse, there was wind too.

I didn't really care about the cold. Mono Lobo Wall was to me a penultimate example of great Carmel diving with great massive structures and an explosion of life everywhere. This is what people say makes Northern California diving world class. I was thinking about this on the way back to Monterey, as we bounced along agains the 8' swell and increasing wind, and decided it was more than worth the slight chill.

Finally back around the corner into the bay we stopped at Cabrillo Point for our final dive. This was a bit of a disappointment: mostly sand bottom with some rock outcroppings but they were full of life, and more Copper Rock Fish. We hung out criss-crossing the anchor line and explored everything we could find, surfacing with about 1000psi left because we were just repeating our tour of the small rocky area we'd found.

Still, it was a good dive and nothing could have made me want to miss the earlier dive at Mono Lobo, so the day was a complete success.

As we got close to the harbor the sun came out and warmed us a bit. Here's a shot of both me and Anne as we entered the harbor on the way back. Chilly? Nah.

Metridium Fields for ever

Anne and I had watched the sunrise from somewhere on Hwy 101 southbound on our way to Monterey for a meetup with other
and people. It looked like it was going to shape up into a great day, and as we headed past Marina and could see the water I got very stoked: glassy, hardly any swell, and bright sunshine.

We pulled into the lot at the Breakwater and got the last spot on the lower lot, somehow, even though it was 9 am and all the parking spots should have been claimed by then. It was a harbinger of good fortune.

The grass was vivid green in the morning sun, and the water looked great. Last time I'd been to the breakwater had been a red tide day, so it was nice to see better conditions. Sarah and Mark had already begun spreading out tarps on the grass so we joined them and soon Michelle and Brad showed up along with some others that I'd only known from online. Kevin and Denise from dropped by on their way to Lobos, and it was a fun, relaxing morning.

Soon everyone was geared up and Ron was giving the briefing about how to find the Metridiums. I'd never been out there, though as a North Coast diver I'm used to long surface swims. As it turned out the swim to the end of the pipe was about the same as the swim out to the mouth of Ft Ross East Cove. No big deal, and with the flat seas and lack of wind, the swim out with about 15 others was easy and fun.

The pipe runs on about a 40 degree heading, so after lining up with Reeside to the west, the white rock to the north, the end of the breakwater to the south (roughly) we dropped and found the pipe almost immediately. Following the pipe for another 30 meters or so we found the end and continued that same heading for another 30 meters or so and soon we could see the shale beds and metridiums looming in the distance.

Vis was about 15-20 feet, compromised a bit by the billions of fry in the water. Anne and I cruised around the Met Fields and found numerous clumps of rock to the north with big crops of anemones, all unfolded in their glory.

Turn pressure was 1800PSI and our plan was to head back on a 210 degree heading aimed at the stairs by the bathroom. I'd thought we'd see nothing but sand on the way back but was wrong. There were loads of tube anemones, and frequent clumps of rock with bat stars, corynactus, palm kelp and fish. We found some junk on the bottom: an old dive light with parts missing and a restaurant napkin, which we swept up and brought ashore. Also in our path was a pair of huge concrete blocks with a big rusty chain off of one of them.

We swam from one rock formation to the next finding shallower water until we ran across the big pipe again, which we followed for another few meterse into about 10 feet of water where we surfaced for a leisurely swim/walk to the beach. The tide was super low and we walked out past many rocks that would normally be underwater.

Back on the grass people fired up barbeques and laid their wetsuits out in the sun to dry.

Around 2pm we geared up again for a dive out the wall and back. The tide was even lower and you could walk out to about the number 5 on the breakwater wall. We swam out to the bend and dropped in a group. There was some confusion with so many divers and Anne and I decided to get out in the clear so we kicked a bit along the wall and found some relatively clear water. Vis was about 15 or so, pretty good for breakwater.

I love the tube anemones and they were all over the bottom. There were halfmoons in the rocks and lots of stars. I was looking for nudis but didn't see any, and neither did I see any seals or sea lions.

Pretty soon we were heading back along the wall, encountering other divers on the way and gradually finding brighter sunlight in the shallower water. The breakwater isn't a spectacular dive, but I always enjoy it because it's easy and zero stress, while there is always something to see in the rocks and on the sand.

Here are more photos from the day:

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Drudgery of Drills

Today Anne and I tested out some new gear in a short pool dive. Anne was getting familiar with her new BC while I had decided to clip things off differently and wanted to test my new camera rig. Here's a shot of her at the bottom of the pool.

In view of the fact that we're going to be each other's buddy for up to half a dozen dives this weekend we also decided to do some S-drills. These are not easy or fun with short hoses, as my DIR friends are fond of telling me. But we did them, all with my camera and strobe clipped off to their assigned D-Ring. I felt better at least.

The thing about getting out of the water late on a winter afternoon is that you want to try to get your gear off and cleaned up before it gets too cold and your hands freeze off just from pulling things out of the rinse tank.

The other good thing about doing drills and checking things out in the pool after a few weeks away from the water is that you do get a little rusty and it's worth sharpening up especially if you have new gear or new ways of doing things.

Now all that's left to do is get my tanks filled tomorrow, pack up my gear and then actually get up at 4:45 Saturday morning. I wish there was a drill that made that easier.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

A New Year of Diving

It's the middle of January and I haven't been diving all year. At least I'll be able to say that until sometime this Saturday morning, when my buddy Anne and I will hit the water in Monterey for a visit to the Metridium Fields with friends from and We're heading south really early so we can get there in time to park somewhere east of Pacific Grove.

I am excited because this will be my first weekend diving with my new camera setup. Nothing fancy, but serviceable Canon SD870, Canon housing, and a pretty nice Inon D2000 strobe. I'm tired of coming back from a great diving trip with only stories about how beautiful it all is. Now I'll have photos.

My last trip was at the very end of last year, on Vision, to the Channel Islands. Here's a shot taken by Michelle Boucher of me and my buddy Pete at a spot named Cuevas Valdez.

This spot, on the North Side of Santa Cruz, featured large caves and huge spires of textured rock sloping sharply off the island down to a sandy bottom at about 60 feet. Pete had just freed a Horn Shark from where it had got stuck between two rocks, and we were headed back to the boat when we saw Michelle with her camera.

It was our last of three days of bouncing between Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands, and we'd had great weather and good sea conditions. The diving was, at times, just spectacular. Visibility varied with location, but we'd had a few dives with 60 foot viz that were breathtaking.

Our first dive of the last day was one of the best. Fern Grotto, north side of Santa Cruz, we dropped onto a ridge that was the underwater extension of the west point of the grotto. We could see all the way down the terraced contour to about 110' or so as the ridge sloped off into deep water. We descended right down the spine of it, marvelling at the diversity of marine life crowding the rocks and fissures. I saw a large yellow striped fish in a hole that was too big to be a juvenile Treefish. We soared down the slope to about 95' and levelled off, then looped back in an ascending spiral to explore the west side of the ridge. As we came around the peak there unfolded in front of us a wide, deep sand channel with another huge dike about 50 meters away. Looking just to the left around the west side we saw that the ridge dropped off in a sheer cliff down to about 120'. We glided out over the wall, which extended up to about 30' depth above us, and we hovered just off the face looking into small cracks for nudis.

Sadly we didn't have air to go further exploring so headed back to the boat vowing to get over to that far westerly wall another time.

Aboard the boat were some who'd come for the lobster. Here's a bug that got caught out of his hole during the night dive on Anacapa after the second day.

The next day on Anacapa we drifted a bit west from our overnight anchorage at Cat Rock and did our first dive at Coral Reef. This location was stunning: a set of pinnacles whose peaks were at about 40' but which dropped off to the west and south into dramatic, wide canyons and ledges to a 120' bottom of gently sloping sand and rock. We could see all the way down the canyons and the massive structures, walls, and valleys were an unbelievable spectacle. We elected to traverse north along the west side of the outer pinnacle. The bottom looked at first like a smooth rounded series of hillocks sloping off to ledges over which we could see successive terraces all the way to the bottom. On closer inspection the brown covering of the hillsides turned out to be literally billions of brittle stars waving their small tentacles. It was like the very ground was completely alive.

We circled around to where there was some kelp growing out of rock and ascended a bit to traverse back toward the boat across the endless bed of brittle stars.

On the other side of the anchor line the terrain changed completely. We were looking directly down the broad canyon that opened out into deep water to the south. At the apex of this canyon we glided into a realm of textured, jumbled rock that more resembled Monterey, with the customary explosion of invertibrate life, including sponges, gorgonians, kelp, strawberry anemones, telia anemones, scallops, and nudibranchs.

We wandered around and through the rock pillars until our air got low and then headed back to the boat, ascending with the help of some giant kelp stalks. I later learned that there are three pinnacles here, running roughly parallel to the island, with sand channels in between. Once again, we'd only seen a tiny portion of this majestic underwater realm. Must return.

On the way back to Santa Barbara the sea was calm and the water glassy. You'd hardly think it was winter. Dolphins jumped in and out of the wake and the low afternoon sun was warm on us as we hung out on the stern of Vision looking at the islands receding over the horizon.

Here's a picture of Pete at the back of the boat trying to get in position to photograph the dolphins.